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Colonial resolve
The new nation
Civil War
     Votes for women
     Harding and Cleveland years
     Hoover and the Great Depression
     The New Deal
     USA and World War II

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Prohibition: 1920-33

From the early nineteenth-century the Temperance Movement has grown steadily in strength in the USA, as also in Britain and in parts of the British empire. During the First World War it benefits from a new and practical reason to limit alcohol production. Resources used to produce alcohol can more usefully be applied to the war effort. In December 1917, nine months after the USA declares war on Germany, Congress drafts an amendment to the Constitution declaring the sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors anywhere in the country to be illegal. Thirteen months later, in January 1919, sufficient states have ratified the act for it to be passed into law as the Eighteenth Amendment. It is to take effect a year later, in January 1920.

The Act does not prohibit the drinking of alcohol, but with the sale of it now outlawed people have no way of procuring it legally. With customers eager to buy it at inflated prices and to drink it in clandestine bars (the speakeasies), prohibition proves a godsend to well-organized criminal syndicates such as the Mafia or Al Capone's Chicago Mob. The most infamous of all the violent crimes of the era is the St Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929, in which seven members of Bugs Moran's gang are slaughtered with machine guns by gangsters in police uniforms. It is widely assumed, but has never been proved, that the gangsters have taken their instructions from Al Capone. Prohibition is not ended until December 1933, when the Twenty-First Amendment repeals the Eighteenth.


Votes for women: 1848-1920

Until the mid-19th-century the idea that women might vote in elections had occurred to very few men and probably not many more women. But from that period the campaign for female suffrage becomes an increasingly passionate one, particularly in the United States and Britain. In the United States many women are actively involved in the campaign to end slavery in America, and the notion of women's rights first creeps on to the agenda in tandem with the rights of African-American slaves. The issue surfaces first in one of the more unusual revolutionary gatherings of 1848, the great year of revolutions. In July of that year two anti-slavery campaigners, Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott, invite colleagues to a two-day convention on women's rights in Mrs Stanton's home in New York state (at Seneca Falls). It is the first of many such gatherings which lead, in 1869, to the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association. That same year sees the movement's first triumph. The newly established territory of Wyoming, in its first charter, gives women in 1869 the right to vote in all elections. But the good citizens of Wyoming are ahead of their time.
In the next year, 1870, normality is restored with a decisive thump. In the aftermath of the Civil War and the emancipation of the southern slaves, the 16th amendment to the Constitution glaringly omits any mention of women. It states that the right of citizens to vote shall not be denied 'on account of race, colour or previous condition of servitude'. Over the following decades steady progress is made in persuading individual states to give women equal franchise with men, but it is not until the levelling experience of World War I that the aim is achieved at a federal level. The 19th amendment, in 1920, finally states that the right to vote shall not be denied 'on account of sex'.


The Harding and Cleveland years: 1921-29

In September 1919 Woodrow Wilson suffers a severe stroke that leaves him incapable of making constructive use of his final months in office. The election in the following year is won by Warren Harding with a popular vote of exceptional size, 60% as opposed to 34% for his Democrat opponent, James M. Cox.

Warren Harding has long had a reputation as one of the worst US presidents, but his record in his very short presidency is far from bad. He supports and often fights hard for socially enlightened measures such as civil rights for African Americans, including political, educational and economic equality. But frequently progress on issues such as these is frustrated by pressure groups or politicians. Even a federal anti-lynching bill, passed by the House of Representatives in 1922, is blocked by southern Democrats in the Senate. In that same year Harding convenes a conference in the White House between manufacturers and unions to try and limit the length of the working day. Very little progress is made. Only one group of employers, those in the steel industry, agree to reduce the working day from twelve hours to eight. Bills more obviously in step with the public mood pass easily into law, such as the Per Centum Act of 1921, restricting immigration on a percentage basis.

Harding also plays a role on the international stage, even though refusing to follow his predecessor's policy on the League of Nations. He convenes a global commission in Washington with the purpose of ending the naval arms race and improving safety in several other aspects of seafaring. The USA provides the lead, offering to decommission 30 of its warships if Britain will follow suit with a reduction of 17 ships and Japan of 13. The conference results in six treaties and twelve resolutions between the nations involved.

The issues which have tarnished Harding's reputation are cronyism and corruption. His administration includes in positions of power, with some even in the cabinet, his colleagues and friends from his days as a politician in Ohio. They become known as the Ohio Gang, and several of them are notorious for corruption. The most damaging is Albert B. Fall, the Secretary of the Interior, who leases valuable oil reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming at much reduced rates and without competitive tendering. He is later proved to have accepted large bribes from the oil companies and in 1929 is sentenced to a year in prison, becoming the first former US cabinet member to find himself in that position. The scandal greatly damages Harding's reputation, but only posthumously. The details only become known in 1924, and Harding has died of a heart attack in August 1923. He is succeeded by his vice-president, Calvin Coolidge.

In his first speech to Congress in December of that year (incidentally the first speech by a president to be broadcast over the radio) Coolidge makes it plain that in general he will be following Harding's policies, including his position on immigration and on civil rights for all Americans. Known as a man of few words, Coolidge becomes a minimalist president, believing in the least possible regulation of the activities of American citizens and the least possible presidential intrusion in their lives. This attitude, verging on idleness, has always been the main criticism of his administration until, more recently, a considerable success has been achieved by the not dissimilar approach of the far more congenial Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, Coolidge becomes a popular president, after initial bewilderment by the public because he has had until now so little profile nation-wide. What most wins him approval is his obvious and total probity after the scandals of the Harding era. But he also happens to head the nation at a time of sudden and exceptional prosperity and cultural vitality.

Coolidge's best-known statement sums up very well his belief in non-interference in the creative daily activities of the average citizen: 'The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing, prospering in the world.' And the society over which he presides seems to prove him right. Business does prosper greatly, and the great technological achievements of recent times (such as automobiles, movies, telephones, gramophones and radios) become cheaper and more widely available, improving the lives of many. For all these reasons the period becomes known as the Roaring Twenties; and the craze for a new and exhilarating style of music gives it its other title, the Jazz Age.

None of this derives from any action taken by Coolidge, and the mood of the times could hardly be further from his own puritanical life style. His terse manner is displayed in extreme form when he makes a surprise announcement while on holiday in the summer of 1927: 'I do not choose to run for President in 1928'. He later explains his decision as being caused by a feeling that no-one should spend too long in Washington or continue in a task which they feel it is beyond their strength to accomplish.


Hoover and the Great Depression: 1929-33

The Republican candidate in the 1928 election is the man who has been an extremely successful Secretary of Commerce, greatly improving the efficiency and potential of American business, in the cabinets of both Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. He is Herbert Hoover. His reputation after eight years in office guarantees him the Republican nomination, and makes him an easy winner of the presidential election, though aided also by prejudice in many Protestant communities against his Democrat opponent, a Roman Catholic, Alfred E. Smith.

When Hoover enters the White House, in January 1929, the economy is booming, for which he can justifiably be given much of the credit. This promising situation lasts for only a few months. The great misfortune and defining moment of Hoover's presidency is the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. In August and September the national GDP has declined, causing a gradual acceleration in the number of shares sold each day on Wall Street. This suddenly accelerates on October 24, when the market loses 11% of its value when trading opens. The slide is halted when the major banks buy a lot of blue-chip shares at over their market value, resulting in the loss for the day of only 6%.

But the recovery is temporary. Massive selling continues, with the greatest number of transactions on October 29 known as Black Tuesday. On that Monday and Tuesday combined the market loses 25% of its value. Over the next two and a half years it fluctuates, with several recoveries but in an overall downward direction. The lowest point is in June 1932, when the Dow Jones index reaches 41. This represents an 89% loss since the Wall Street Crash of 1929. During that time the financial crisis turns into a major international recession characterized by the familiar combination of the public's withdrawal of funds, bank failures, shortage in the money supply, deflation and rising unemployment. This disaster becomes known as the Great Depression.

There are many conflicting economic theories as to the precise reasons for the crisis of 1929-32, but the statistics tell the story. During that period in the USA industrial production falls by 46%, wholesale prices by 32%, foreign trade by 70%, and unemployment rises by a factor of six (607%). The figures are similar in the other major industrial nations. The largest percentage loss, in foreign trade, is triggered by the Smoot Hawley Act, passed by Congress in March 1930. Its purpose is to protect all US products, both agricultural and industrial, by raising the tariffs on imported goods to exceptionally high levels.

It differs in a very important respect from the legislation proposed by President Hoover, who has asked Congress for an act raising tariffs only on agricultural products. He is known to be strongly opposed to the new levels being applied to industry, because he is a firm believer in international competition. In May a petition reaches him, signed by more than 1000 US economists, begging him to use his power of veto to prevent the bill becoming law, and leading industrialists agree. Henry Ford spends an evening at the White House, strongly putting the same case. But Hoover is persuaded by pressure from within his own party and, reluctantly, signs.

The opponents of the bill are soon proved right. Other nations retaliate, raising their own tariff levels on imports from the USA, and international trade declines dramatically. Many economists have argued that without the Smoot-Hawley Act the slide into deep recession could have been modified or even halted. Meanwhile Hoover is taking a strong Keynesian line in response to the depression, spending large sums on infrastructure projects to provide employment and stimulate the economy. The most expensive of these interventions is the $915 million public works programme launched in July 1930. The largest single element in the programme is the construction of a massive dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, which forms at that point the border between Arizona and Nevada. It has several purposes: the provision of hydro-electricity, the distribution of water for irrigation, and flood control. Its summit is used to carry U.S. Route 93, a major new north-south highway being constructed at the same time (this is replaced by a bypass for security reasons after 9/11). The dam, originally known as the Boulder Dam, also becomes known as the Hoover Dam. The two are used indiscriminately, with some objecting to the implied tribute to Hoover, until in 1947 Congress decrees that Hoover Dam is the official name.

The economic and employment benefits from these initiatives are increased by new labour legislation, the Davis-Bacon Act, signed by Hoover in 1931. It limits the working day on public projects to eight hours and makes it federal law that the workers on such projects must be paid at least the local wage prevailing in the district. Many of Hoover's measures prefigure quite closely, though on a smaller scale, the much better-known projects of the New Deal introduced by his successor as president, the Democrat F.D. Roosevelt. In the election of 1932 Hoover, massively unpopular because of his association with the Depression, stands little chance. On his campaign trips he meets a very hostile reception, with people pelting the presidential train and car with eggs and rotten fruit. He receives death threats and on occasion the police prevent attempts on his life during his meetings. It is little surprise that he receives only 40% of the popular vote to Roosevelt's 57%.


F.D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1933

Roosevelt's victory launches one of the most unusual and successful presidencies in US history. His ambition and attention to detail has been vividly shown already, but not seen, in his response to the polio that disables him at the age of thirty-nine in 1921, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He is already a successful politician, as a state senator in New York from 1910 and as Assistant Secretary to the Navy in Woodrow Wilson's administration during the First World War. In the previous election he has been the Democrats' candidate for the vice-presidency, and his sights are clearly set on the presidency itself.

With this in mind he is well aware of the disadvantage his disability could bring. He is determined as far as possible to conceal it. He uses a wheelchair in private but in public is only seen seated in a chair, most often behind a desk, or in a car. With his legs in metal braces up to his hips he is able to stand, with someone beside him for balance, and he learns to walk short distances with an awkward rolling gait, again only in private. Word obviously gets out that he has some difficulty but he ensures, with astonishing success in his subsequent very high-profile life, that the American people are never reminded of this and never see what it is. Only two photographs are known to exist of him in his wheelchair and there are only four seconds of film of him walking.

His flair for publicity is immediately evident in his first days in office as president. The nation is desperate for decisive action and he seizes the moment, saying that he intends to work closely with Congress for a hundred days from March 9 and describing the reforms he aims to pass into law during that time. He is the first politician to offer 100 days as a yardstick for the success of a new administration or government: it has been often imitated since. In the new mood of the times Congress accepts and passes every proposal that the president makes in that period. These cover the regulation of banks, the legalizing and taxing of wine and beer (a popular step towards the ending of Prohibition), and the creation of agencies charged with achieving specific policies: they include finding work for three million young men in projects such as road building and forestry, immediately distributing $500 million for relief (an agency that eventually pays out $3 billion), and raising farm prices and thus the income of farmers by ending over-production

These measures and others based on Keynesian economics (using a temporarily raised deficit to fund measures to revitalize the economy) become known as the New Deal, from a phrase used by Roosevelt in his acceptance of the Democratic nomination for president: 'I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.'

By far the largest step taken in the 100 days, and subsequently the best known, is the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the TVA. This body is charged with using a very large supply of federal money to improve infrastructure and standards of living in Tennessee, one of the areas worst affected by the depression. The land in rural Tennessee provides extremely low levels of income due to years without crop rotation and steadily depleted forests. Many of the TVA projects are educational but the main aim of the project is the building of dams to control flooding and provide the communities with electricity, very much as with the scheme's predecessor the Hoover Dam. The project continues its work into the 21st century, but the Obama administration has declared a wish to reduce or eliminate the federal government's role in enterprises of this kind, eighty years after TVA's creation as a government project in the New Deal.

Another New Deal project is the Soil Erosion Service, formed in 1933 to cope with an aspect of the Depression caused by nature. A period of unprecedented drought has become a disaster in the grain-growing plains of the Midwest. Severe lack of rain causes the already crumbling topsoil, the result of deep-ploughing over too many years, to degrade into light dust. Whenever the wind blows this causes appalling dust storms, reducing visibility to almost nothing and removing yet more of the earth's surface. In 1933 it has to be tackled urgently. It is seen as a major but temporary crisis. In the event the drought lasts to the end of the decade. Many people from rural communities, reduced to poverty, make a desperate journey westwards to the state known for its great promise, California. But in the circumstances of the Depression there is very little work there either. This is the scenario vividly and bleakly described in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, following the setbacks and suffering of one family, the Joads, on their journey west and then their desperate attempt to survive in California.

In 1933 Roosevelt pioneers a new way for a president to communicate with the electorate. When something needs explaining, or when persuasion is needed to win people's support for a policy, he goes on the radio and talks in an entirely relaxed and informal manner. This is not a speech or address of any kind. It is essentially a chat, a communication between himself and an individual or a family, and these occasions rapidly become known as his 'fireside chats'. Between 1933 and the last full year of his presidency, in 1944, there are roughly three fireside chats in each year. The first is on the banking crisis in March 1933; in the second, two months later, he outlines the New Deal programme; there is one in 1936 on drought conditions. On 3 September 1939 his subject is the European War the very day on which France and Britain have declared war on Germany. The subject is a difficult one for Roosevelt.


The USA and World War II: 1939-41

The American public is deeply isolationist and Congress reflects this when it passes in 1937 a strict Neutrality Act forbidding military aid or the supply of arms to any nation at war. Roosevelt, for sound political reasons, emphasizes at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938 he emphasizes that the USA will not join a coalition to stop Hitler and in the event of a German invasion of Czechoslovakia will remain neutral. Nevertheless, privately, he is very well aware of the danger, even to the USA, if Hitler succeeds in controlling the whole of Europe. In the first month of the war he begins a secret correspondence with Winston Churchill. Both men share a past in being active in a naval department during the First World War, Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary to the Navy. Their relationship, by telegram and letter, becomes closer in 1940 when France has fallen and they are president and prime minister. In a fireside chat to the nation in December of that year Roosevelt hopes to persuade the people that their great country is necessarily 'the agent of democracy'.

Meanwhile he exerts pressure on the members of Congress to relax the Neutrality Act so that he may support Britain. Reluctantly they pass the Lend-lease Act enabling the president to provide aid to any nation whose defence he believes to be vital to US interests. The first recipient is Britain, but by the end of the war thirty-eight nations have received aid and materials amounting in value to some $50 billion. Some of this is given, some is in the form of long-term loans (not until 1972 do repayments finally come to an end). This support is gratefully received. But the more urgent aim of Winston Churchill is to involve the USA as a combatant.

In July 1941 Roosevelt invites Churchill to cross the Atlantic for a secret conference. The two men have established an increasingly warm personal relationship in correspondence over the past year, but they have not as yet met. Churchill eagerly accepts and travels in Britain's most modern battleship, the Prince of Wales, to the rendezvous - in Placentia Bay, off Newfoundland. Churchill's aim at this stage is to extract the strongest possible public commitment of the president to the Allied cause. Roosevelt, on the other hand, has to tread a cautious line. He has been re-elected for a third term, in November 1940, on the platform of keeping the USA out of Europe's war, pledging that he will 'not send American boys into any foreign wars'. Nevertheless he is profoundly committed to an Allied victory.

As a result of these conflicting requirements the document emerging from the talks, published on 14 August 1941 as the Atlantic Charter, is a very general statement of the basic principles of democracy, free trade and international law. Indeed its clauses are subsequently made part of the Declaration of the United Nations. But there is one phrase, strikingly different in tone, which serves Churchill's purpose admirably. The two leaders state that they will together seek a peace which will 'for ever cast down the Nazi tyranny'. With this made known to the world, there is no doubting where the USA stands. Churchill can press no further at this stage. And in the event it is something entirely beyond his control that achieves his purpose - in December 1941 at Pearl Harbor.


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